Buying Land

Comparable or Not? The Shortcomings of the Comparable Sales Appraisal in Rural Real Estate

Comparable or Not? The Shortcomings of the Comparable Sales Appraisal in Rural Real Estate

I realize that what I am about to say is not going to be welcomed by many in the appraisal community, and many in the world of real estate sales. However, dislike for a particular set of facts does not change the validity of the argument. Comparable sales appraisals are deeply flawed in the area of rural real estate. Perhaps this method fits the urban and suburban real estate markets well, but there are many aspects of it’s methodology that are far from being in concert with the realities of the rural real estate market. However, the entire real estate industry seems to blindly follow this method because it’s the standard. Sub-prime mortgages based off of the upward nature of the value of suburban real estate was the standard that everyone subscribed to a few years ago too.

The very nature of the rural real estate transaction is just completely different than it’s suburban counterpart. In suburbia, buyer and seller are not likely to know one another or have undisclosed reasons for making a particular purchase; thus giving credence to the notion of most transactions being “arm’s length.” Further, it is likely, even in seller’s markets, that the buyer will have several choices in a given area that fit their basic needs. The more transient nature of our suburban, home-buying population also means that it in a given area it is likely that several other similar properties, in terms of functional usage, have recently sold. None of this holds true in the rural real estate market. The principals in a rural real estate transaction are much more likely to know one another and have reasons for buying and selling that are not dollars and cents. This kind of thing is seldom known by the appraiser, and cannot be accounted for logically. Rural real estate does not change hands nearly as frequently. Often an Alabama cattle farm south of Montgomery is more comparable to a cattle farm in Florida than it is the property immediately adjacent to it. Currently accepted comparable sales guidelines cannot account for this. Combine the lack of similarity with lack of transactions in a market area and intangible reasoning for purchase decisions and the whole notion of comparable sales appraisal breaks down.

I’ve got friends that practice comparable sales appraisal in my rural market area. Almost without fail, they back into an appraisal rather than moving forward through it. Let me explain myself. They start with a value opinion and then set about to prove it. Conventional thought on the matter is that appraisers base their value opinions on “the market” and move forward to a value determination. As you can see, rural real estate appraisers, in practice, base their valuations off the subject property and work backwards to “the market.” Now, I’m not calling them out on this. They do the best they can to work within the system accepted by our industry today. They are given a flawed system and told to fit a property into it.

Let’s look at some of the aspects above. Buyers and sellers in rural real estate markets are much more likely to know or “know of” one another than in suburban markets. This can have positive or negative impacts on the price at which a transaction occurs, dependent on your viewpoint. For instance, Farmer John who is retiring and selling his farm knows Bill Smith. They’ve been in the same community for 25 years, and they go to church with one another. Bill’s son, Thomas, just graduated and wants to try his hand at farming. John is sympathetic to Thomas, especially since Thomas has worked for him the last three years while finishing college. John knows he can get $500,000 for his operation but agrees to finance it for Thomas at a purchase price of $400,000. Thomas jumps on the opportunity and a transaction has occurred. The appraiser sees that the farming operation transacted at $400,000 and not that Farmer John was sympathetic to Thomas and agreed to sell him the operation for less than the open market would have allowed. Appraisers cannot account for this in the comparables approach. Let’s say the shoe was on the other foot. Now, Farmer John is retiring and he knows Bill, but Bill is a developer. Farmer John thinks that if Bill’s son is interested in the property then it must be for development purposes, and now is not sympathetic to him. Farmer John sees his life’s work being turned into something he despises and says, if Bill’s son is going to buy this place, he’s going to have to pay me $600,000. Now Bill knows the farm will not bring this on the open market, but he is sympathetic to his son’s desire to begin farming and will help him pay more than the property is worth to keep his son in the community. Now the same farm has transacted for $600,000 for sympathetic reasons. Where on the comparable sale appraisal form can the appraiser account for sympathy?

Choices between properties are much, much more limited in rural real estate. Often a buyer may span multiple markets when searching out a fitting property, which means they are comparing properties that the comparables approach to value would have very different basic values. Dirt values on the properties they compare may vary hundreds of percent. A forty-acre, rural East Central Alabama farm will have a different dirt value, in the comparables approach, than a forty-acre Florida farm in the panhandle…even though the buyer is comparing them for the same end-use.

Rural Americans are much more likely to stay put. This results in less action in the rural real estate market than in nearby suburban markets. This means that comparable sales for the rural real estate appraisal must span a much longer period of time, which makes the comparables method less responsive to changing market conditions than the same method used in town. That creates a lag in the upward and downward mobility of a market that often results in a wild swing in values when the market realizes that it’s “off.” Here in my home county, there was a great deal of resistance to the downward pressure of the market a few years ago. Comparable appraisals, while not solely responsible, played a part in this. The market eventually slowed to a standstill until some sellers eventually realized their property would not bring what was suggested by the “comparables,” and began selling at prices that were not even close. If you can’t picture this graphically, it resulted in a cliff on the market curve. The comparable sales approach is backwards reaching, not forward reaching.

Many, many times in rural real estate the feeling that a buyer has when looking at a property trumps function. Comparable sales appraisals are built around similarity in function, not buyer’s feelings.

Now that I have roundly blasted this approach, I would be doing a disservice not to suggest better methodology. Land holds productive capacity that can be measured. In timberland, that manifests itself as a site index. When a property’s highest and best use (HBU) is timberland, then an appraisal based on the land’s production capacity and income-producing ability is much more measurable and verifiable. The production capacity of a farm can be measured similarly with yields, and soil quality. Yes, these things take a much more specialized appraiser and more work. In rural properties where the HBU is not an agricultural endeavor, then a hybrid approach is probably more applicable. A cost approach appraisal for improvements with an underlying comparable sales approach for the dirt would more accurately reflect value. None of our current systems are perfect, but I think we can improve upon the use of the comparable sales approach in rural property.

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About the author

Robert King

Robert is a Land Agent with Southeastern Land Group. He specializes in helping buyers and sellers of farms, poultry operations, and timberland throughout Alabama and Georgia. Robert is a regular contributor on The Land Show radio program and the Southeastern Land Group Blog.

27 Comments

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  • The fact is almost every tract of land is unique where you can usually find similar homes comps, sometimes almost indentical. Land involves, road frontage, lay of land, timber value, improvements, creeks or watefront, mineral rights, soil productivity and more. Hard to find 3 or more just like any tract being appraised.

  • I disagree with your basic premise that there is little validity to the comparable sales approach in rural property. I do agree that many appraisers “back into value”. This is appraisers doing incorrect methodology, not a problem with the comparable sales approach.

    All data used should come from the market place and the sales that have occurred. Sales are correctly used in to determine component values in the cost approach and typical incomes for the Income Approach. When appraisers base values on other factors that is when appraisal opinions lead to incorrect results.

    The weakness is that appraisers do not investigate each sale to find out everything about it including the motivations of the Seller and Buyer. Once these factors are known the good appraiser can make the appropriate adjustments for size, location, time, productivity, intended use, ownership motivation, etc. Unfortunately typical appraisal training doesn’t emphasize the research and verification needed for each sale used. Some Appraisers also many times are lazy in this research and it causes mistaken assumptions which is a valid criticism of the profession, but not a problem with the approaches.

    Unfortunately your article contributes to the incorrect attitude that “appraisers” aren’t providing the value that you expected or “needed” and therefore they are less than competent.. Appraisers have a very difficult job and have to arrive at an opinion sometimes based on limited sales market data which forces the use of comparable sales from a wider geographical search.

    Actually the Comparable Sale Approach on rural land is the key approach to use. It should lead to the most informed Fair Market Value Opinion if the sales due diligence is detailed for each sale used in the analysis.

    • The Comparable Sales Appraisal is not suitable to be used in Rural Real Estate appraisal, not its shortcoming, but the less rural land transactions. Factly, the example about John and Bill is not an eligible sample. The transaction price must be objective, it is the basic principle in real estate appraisal.

    • You nailed it Steve.
      If I could add a couple points:
      1. A lot will also depend on the purpose (and cost) of the report.
      2. Just because another approach may carry more validity for a given assignment does not make the direct comparison approach invalid.
      In the end I fail to see how the proposed alternatives solve anything. The income approach presumably would need to be capitalized based on actual sales and the cost approach requires reliance on land sales. Either way non-arms-length transactions may be part of the picture. They are either included with appropriate adjustments or they are excluded. The article appears to suggest we can estimate market value without going to the market.

    • Comparable Sales approach is not the approach to use when comparing the rural dwelling only which in fact is what is actually being compared. We had a real estate appraisal on three farms each with own dwelling and the comparable sales were completely off. Then we had a agricultural appraiser do the work and they were much more focused on the land and not the dwellings, their appraisal was closer to value than the real estate appraisal.

  • @Steve, Robert did not imply nor did he say anyone was incompetent or that their job was easy. He’s saying the foundation of the system is flawed and broken as it relates to rural land (kind of like our political system in this country). For residential, it’s ok.

    I agree with Robert, there aren’t enough rural land transactions and land is so different in makeup and size from tract-to-tract. Even if you investigate them forever, you are rarely going to find a common denominator. If I investigate apples and oranges, I still have apples and oranges when I’m done that only have the “fruit” category in common. They back into the value because they have no other way to go.

    The system is flawed and broken AS IT RELATES TO RURAL LAND. How can you determine tomorrow’s value on a banana based on yesterday’s numbers from an apple and orange?

  • I agree that comp sale for land are flawed but your example of selling $100,000 below true value is far fetched. Soil types, growth potential, flood plain and site index need to be considered as much if not more the what adjacent properties sold for

  • I agree with Robert. Especially in these times when sales are fewer. In rural real estate there are so many types, sizes, and uses for properties. Most of the time it is hard to find “true” comps. You can’t compare a 50 Acre pasture property to a 640 acre tract of pasture/timber property. Sure per acres values may be close to the same. But its hard to compare the two sales. I feel that the appraisers do the best they can do most of the time. But if I am buying property, I don’t want a comp that is 200 miles away or one that isn’t a good match.

  • I just hung up the phone with an appraiser looking for comps for a tract I have under contract, so this is timely.

    It is tough to assign a dollar value to rural land based on comps alone. I also try to compare tax assessed values and multiply them by some factor that seems consistent with what is happening in the market as a check and balance to the recent comps.

    I also like what you mentioned about site index info and P/L statements for a farm (if they have that).

    Valuing rural land is difficult, but I think we all still have to look at the comps to get us in the ballpark, or else we list properties for what we wish they could sell for and not what the market will really bring.

  • Thanks for the comments, everyone. I guess I should state that I too, use the comp approach as a basic level of understanding of the market for a given area. It’s the best choice the layman has available. Other approaches require expertise that comes from specialized experience. The market will not pay appraisers enough to perform the in-depth analysis that are required to get at the factors Steve has mentioned. The market pays for a basic comp appraisal that is little more than what a good residential agent will provide a potential seller on a house sale. Land is infinitely variable, as George stated. I have been the beneficiary of sympathy in a land transaction myself. When I was 18 I purchased a farm for under half of what it would have sold for at the time, because the seller knew I would take care of it…no, the seller was not my dad…lol. I’ve even had instances where I knew sales were not “arm’s length” transactions, told the appraiser that (and the reasons why it was not), and the appraiser was so slim on comps that were not geographically or time challenged in comparison to the subject, that the sale was still used in appraisals. I’m certainly not stating that I have the only answer, I just think our current system is backward looking, and really does try to use yesterday’s price of apples and oranges to determine today’s price for bananas, as Ryan stated. Again, I point to the instance I stated in my home county. It looks like the market took a 30% drop overnight here, when in reality it took at least a year, and probably closer to 18 months…and a large part of that was the use of backward-looking comp appraisals. Sellers that could afford to hold on certainly were not going to sell for less than the appraiser said it was worth…regardless if the current market agreed with the appraiser’s comps or not.

  • This is a good read for anyone considering the purchase of a “Sonoma home with land.” I am frequently asked about land values in Sonoma Valley, what a Glen Ellen home with land would cost, and how much a buyer might expect to pay for a Kenwood home with a vineyard. For reasons spelled out by Robert I usually answer “it’s complicated!” In my market another major factor is the slow turnover of Sonoma Valley homes with acreage. Most of them are handed down from generation to generation which has been the case in my family. Nice, informative post, Robert.

  • Appraisers use three approaches to value to develop a range of values then select the approach that has in the appraiser’s opinion the best data to support their analysis. It is coming at the analysis in different directions. It makes one analyze from different viewpoints and factors.

    The appraiser needs to do the work necessary to analyze sales and charge what is appropriate for his time and experience. Sometimes the exact value isn’t that important. A lender that is loaning 40% LTV doesn’t have to have an perfected opinion but if you are going to court where the appraised values are very important then an appraiser needs to be fully documented and exact in his opinion. This requires a very difficult complete analysis. However to ignore one of the three approaches leads to wrong conclusions or a hole in your analysis that is not to your client’s benefit. To start with the assumption that rural land comparable sales approach is flawed would be a poor conclusion.

  • I have had clients ask me over the years ask why I charged “so much” for a land appraisal when it’s ” just land.” It just stresses the fact that in-depth verification of all sales is not an option, but a necessity. Court house records are the beginning not the end of the Sales Comparison Approach. You need to “talk to the participants” of the sale. In some cases there are more than just two. Is the system flawed? Yes, it is. An appraiser must know, from the outset of the appraisal what the “function of the appraisal” is. I believe that the practice of utilizing “forms” for land appraisals does the property an injustice. They also limit the amount of information that can be displayed to lead the reader to a conclusion,

  • Great article. Other intangibles that affect land price in my area are hunting quality and potential building site view and access. Try putting those into an appraisal!

  • Robert, I liked your article. It touches on a facet of land brokerage that could certainly use improvement, but change will never come. Land buyer’s use unconfirmed comps to make offers. Banks use appraisers to justify the purchase. Problem is neither the buyer or the bank will pay the appraiser enough to vet the comps. I gave up appraising land in the early 80’s because I couldn’t do it right and make money. Has anything changed?

  • We value land every day in our business. At best, it’s bad science or ugly art – perhaps mostly voodoo……….hah. At the end of the day, at least three people need to agree on the value of the property…the buyer, the seller and the lender (with the help of the appraiser). We’ve found good, competent appraisers and some who lack the skillset. It’s important to find the appraiser with the right skills and background for the property so you end up with analysis that yields a reasonable value estimate.

    Because the same property may have multiple users, the value range for a given property may vary dramatically. A timberland quarter in our area may have one economic value for conversion to center pivot irrigation for potatoes and a far different value for use as hunting land. As brokers, if we mis-price, we’ll either do a disservice to our seller/client and the propety doesn’t sell or someone gets an unintended bargain.

    All this discussion is probably why auction sales are used a lot in selling land. We all (sellers, buyers, brokers, appraisers and lenders) estimate value as best we can. But, on the day of the auction, you find out what the true value is on that day with the crowd that shows up. Oh, but that’s another imperfect system to discuss, isn’t it? At the end of the day, we’re all seeking a shared version of the truth. After you’ve applied your brand of science, colored it with your art palatte or stuck a pin in it, it has to feel right in your (and, others’) gut.

  • Golden Rule.

    The one with the gold makes the rules.

    As long as the lender require a Sales Comparison Approach, this is the method that will be used. Rural land appraisals are the hardest appraisals for most appraisers to complete. Because of the lack of data.

  • Critique on Comparable Sales Approach

    I seem to agree and disagree that there are shortcomings to the comparable sales approach as I have found practiced locally too. Is it the approach or the user becomes the question?

    I am a knowledgeable landowner and land manager and have not come across a flawless appraisal for rural property so far, here in BC. Whether it is in comparables, land buyer or seller knowledge, resource values, improper knowledge of zoning, or property attributes appraisers continually do a poor job with the comparable approach. In my area of rural BC it is the lack of transactions and then poor choices when choosing area to pick comparables from that really affect land values on appraisals. I had my first rural appraisal done in 1997 and found a lot of faults with it (mainly use and not explaining whether there was timber or not on each property), so I attended a three day appraisal course to learn more as I had become a registered professional forester and felt I needed to know how to get a better appraisal for clients.

    Buyer and seller knowledge:
    Yes everyone both appraisers and realtors seem to feel the comparable sales approach is the best and usually is the only method used. I have not heard of or read in any appraisal of an appraiser finding out about the knowledge levels of both buyers and sellers of any transaction here in BC and then using this information in evaluating the comparables. No realtor seems to consider this knowledge important. This buyer and seller knowledge is required for an understanding of every transaction I was taught. If an appraiser does not collect or attempt to collect this knowledge the client is not getting value.

    Standards and using only the comparable sale approach:
    In BC I especially find that appraisers claim they are working to Canadian Uniform Standards of Professional Appraisal Practice, but then without justification only use the comparable approach. Sometimes they provide an attempt at justification, but often do not even consider a ‘property’s present use’ which would indicate the other two approaches should be included.

    One appraiser wrote “The site is vacant and thus the property will be valued by the Direct Comparison Approach to value.’’ I would like to see this appraiser explain the reasoning behind this statement; to me it is not an ‘extraordinary limiting condition’ nor explained with this statement. This property was managed for forestry for 22 years, was assessed in Managed Forest classification so the appraiser noted that it was not assessed at market value, and it was well treed with substantial timber values even in a poor market, it was just a well maintained and managed rural property.

    It seems locally most of the shortcomings to the direct comparison approach is that appraisers and realtors mostly rely on this approach and do not do a good job at research, explaining, and justifying each properties differences. They often even state the properties uniqueness and absence of comparable and still only use this method.

  • Living in a non-disclosure state and knowing the nature of the beast (most farm and ranch property is sold at the Café) the good-old-boy network, does not provide agents or appraisers with the comparable sales that can even be used as a bench-mark. That being said we real estate practitioner’s have to find other yard sticks to measure a properties value. Remember, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, every buyer perceives a potential property differently, but the basic ingredients in land value are the same; it’s natural resources, soil, minerals, water, productivity and the ever prevailing common denominator Location, location, location. “Land is a prisoner of its location.” Unknown author.

  • This conversation reinforces the need to hire competent professionals with local knowledge for any appraisal assignment. An appraisal consumer should be aware of any appraiser that claims to be competent in all aspects of appraising. While I am licensed to appraise ANY type of Real Property by my State Licensing Board, I will readily admit I am not qualified to COMPETENTLY appraise many property types. Do I have the education and skill set to work my way through any assignment? Yes! BUT, I would be doing myself and my client a grave disservice in trying to appraise a sky-scraper in a large metropolitan area, a mega-mall, an industrial complex, or a rural property in a different time zone.

    What I am is a rural property specialist in a defined market area/region. I and the other appraisers in my organization take the time to research the sales in our area so that we can make the best informed adjustments to sales if atypical; motivation, financing, or concessions are involved. We also pull soil, wetland, flood and topographic maps etc. to understand what makes up each property. We talk to land managers, Realtors, investors, developers, consultants, neighbors, renters, lawyers, and other local appraisers in order to understand what is happening in the market.

    We charge a fair fee for our knowledge and these services.

    Where the industry is broken is in the individuals and organizations that procure LEAST cost appraisals, often times from incompetent and/or dishonest individuals and then throw the appraisal profession as a whole under the bus when the manure hits the fan.

    As my father-in-law says, “When you ask someone for free (cheap) advice, you get what you paid for!”

  • We hired a local appraiser needed to settle our family trust. His name was available at the county office where the two parcels of land are located. This was in March, 2011, it is now Aug. 2011 and we are still getting excuses of why there is no appraisal. Excuses are: no comparibles, unable to get BLM or Dept of Agriculture to call back, his personal land was flooded etc. etc. You say get a qualified appraiser> How can we check to see this appraiser is for real? There is a 440 acre piece fenced and used for cattle feed in spring and a 36 acre piece (dry farm) yeilding 150-180 bales of hay. Any suggestions? Thanks

    • Contact the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers in Denver and ask for the name of an Accredited Rural Appraiser (ARA) in your area. This will get you the best qualified and experienced appraiser in the area. They have a Denver office and you can Google it. The other source is to call the state appraiser Board and ask for a list of Certified General Appraisers for this area. you can probably also do this online. Some markets do not have very many qualified rural appraisers and they are generally booked up for several months out but you may have selected someone that only does appraisal work part time so doesn’t have the data necessary to get your project done without extensive delay.

      Good Luck!

      SRE

  • It’s not only flawed for rural properties, but also for suburbab/urban ones. We have tracked sales in our local mls for about 2 years now. We have listed our home for sale twice in this time. Each time realtors approach us with “comparables” we are told how nothing really matches exactly, so here are the closest ones. Inevitably the definition of “closest” excludes some homes that are nearly identical to ours and includes some far from what ours is. I would understand this thought process IF it also included those very vaguely comparable properties on the high end of the spectrum, not just the low.

    Let me explain in more detail…. We are a 3 bedroom, 3 bath ranch house in a newer subdivision-full master bath and all 3 beds on the main level. We hvae no exposure in the basement, but do have a large family room and “flex” room in the basement plus another full bath attached to that flex room. (One could have an egress window added for around $2to $3k in our area and make it a legal 4th bedroom). We are one of the larger square footage ranches in the lower priced end of the neighborhood-most hover around 1100 to 1200 sq feet on the main floor, 1700-2000 total finished, we have 1350 main floor, almost 2200 finished total.

    now for some of our “comparables”-a few tri level homes-2 beds and 1 bath upstairs, 1 bed/1 bath in the basement, total sq feet range from 1600 to 1800. a ranch with 2 beds, 1 bath up, 1 bed, 1/2 bath down, 1700 sq ft, a couple of 2 stories around 1800-2000 sq feet total, usually 3 bed, 2.5 baths, no basement bath.

    Long story short, our comparables are based solely on the total number of bedrooms judging from the lists that have been provided to us.

    Houses left off? Our exact floor plan, except exposure in the basement which allows for a legal 4th bedroom, but only a half bath down there instead of full. The ranch we can see out of our kitchen window-smaller-1200 sq ft main level, 800 basement, but again, has exposure and that 4th legal bedroom in the basement. and many more like this. These are the houses that are actually comparable to ours, but because of that legal 4th bedroom, they are left off of our list and presumably left off of buyer’s lists as well. It has tempted me to cut the darn hole in that wall in the basement and claim legal 4th bedroom, even though, we and most buyers we have talked to, would not actually consider a basement bedroom a “bedroom” when it’s so far seperated from the main clump! It’s also been tempting to ask our realtor to list it as a 4th bedroom and use the (not legal) disclaimed that we have seen on many other homes, just to bump us to that “4th bedroom” comparable list! fwiw-our tax assessed value is in line with these 4 bedroom homes, not the “comparables” realtors are pulling!

    The end result is it makes us look overpriced, until people dig deeper and compare us directly to the supposed comparables in person. Then they realize they are not comparable at all. This of course relies on the buyer having a bit of a brain to think with outside of what their realtor feeds them, and frankly, many have proven incapable of that….. (look at the mortgage crisis for example!)

    I have also considered countering this by printing off our own list of comparables, including both the low end 2 bed/1 bath up houses and the 4th bedroom houses. That would at least give the buyer the opportunity to see everything.

  • The above is just one of many many reasons homeowners are not allowed to value their own homes when applying for a mortgage loan. Realtors are not appraisers, but I have a funny feeling this realtor is correct and that you probably need to stick to your day job.

  • Finding comparable sales varies from state to state. Some states do not require sellers and buyers to disclose the sale price in the deed and therefore parties can tell you anything they like including nothing. In states where sales information is readily available, a true professional, designated appraiser can review the sales and (1) Determine a value range (2) Determine the significant differences that exist between the sale and the subject (3) Make adjustments in the sale price for significant differences and (4) Arrive at an OPINION of the value of the land. Appraisers selected for these type assignments should be familiar with the process and the market area. Most flawed appraisals are the result of appraisers who don’t have the necessary skills and knowledge to do the assignment competently. If you really want to know the value of a property you can find a competent/knowledgable appraiser who can provide the service. If you are looking for the cheapest (majority are), you get what you pay for.

  • I have disagreed with appraisals for a couple of reasons: the previously seller added the agents commission to the price and it sold at that price – not for what the property was really worth.
    I’m trying to sell a mini-farm. No appraiser is giving me the selling price of my fencing worth $6,000 and my barn worth $20,000, my whole house generator worth $5500, my land worth $13,000 an acre. When you add all that up Iam getting little for my 3000SF full brick home in good condition.
    Comparables are very unreasonable and don’t make sense. Where is supply and demand? Agents have given me a selling price without even looking at what I am selling! This is why I am not hiring someone else to sell what I have. The school area is another big factor. There are so many factors that appraisers and agents get lazy in their mind. If I am desperate I will sell low. If one values their money, they will hang on until the right buyer comes along.

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